Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Deputy Attorney General
Elizabeth Seton High School Commencement Speech
June 1, 1999
It is a great pleasure to be here today on the occasion of your graduation. I've learned a lot about Elizabeth Seton High School over the years, and I have been very impressed. I know very well the school's commitment to academic excellence, athletic success, and community service, and I applaud the faculty and the staff who have worked so hard to teach and inspire. To the students, I offer my sincerest congratulations. Your graduation from this school should always be a source of great pride to you. Your accomplishment speaks to your intellectual power, hard work, and commitment, and I am honored to be in the presence of so many outstanding young adults here today.
I certainly congratulate all of you on the great accomplishments for which you are being recognized today. I want to take just a moment to personally recognize a young woman who I have known since she was a young girl. I have seen her mature from a cute little person into a beautiful young woman. I have seen her handle difficulties in her life with poise and grace. I am as proud of her today as her parents are. Congratulations Katie Bradley.
I also want to congratulate the parents and other care givers who are here today. Raising children is never easy. But you have had to raise these fine young women during a particularly difficult time. I know it was not always easy. But guess what ? You succeeded! Though we deservedly recognize the Class of 1999 here today, we also are, in fact, recognizing the great work that you parents and others did. Feel proud about what you have done -- I congratulate you also.
I'm going to ask the Class of 1999 to stand, turn and give a standing ovation to the people who really made this day possible for you, parents, care givers, faculty.
You stand today at the end of one part of your lives. Your adolescence is over, and you are now poised to enter the adult world. Your entry into adulthood is rightly a cause for celebration, as adulthood is filled with new and often exhilarating challenges and opportunities. The opportunity to make your own decisions about the direction of your life, and the accompanying feeling of freedom and independence, are two of the particularly exciting aspects of adulthood that lie ahead for you. I have no doubt that all of you will make intelligent and informed choices in these matters, and will enjoy success and happiness in whatever paths you choose.
I feel that I would be remiss, however, if I did not speak, at least briefly, about the unique challenges that may confront you as young women. While things in 1999 are much different than they were in 1969 when I graduated from high school, you must be prepared to deal with a world that is still, at times, unfair. We have seen tremendous progress. We have more women doctors, lawyers, and scientists than ever before. For the first time in history, the Attorney General of the United States, my boss, is a woman.
But some doors still seem to remain closed. Even after 1992's historic "Year of the Woman," where more women than ever before were elected to Congress, female membership still remains at only 10%. The United States has never had a female president. CEO positions and law firm partnerships are held overwhelmingly by men. Women, more than men, still struggle to meet the demands of career and family. Many young girls still lack the confidence they need to fulfill their dreams.
What does this mean for you? It means that you may will to work a little harder than the man next door to get what you want, that you must be serious in your pursuits, rigorous in your studies and your work. But this is not a cause for alarm but an opportunity to rise to the challenge. Yours is the generation that will cross the last barriers for women, take those final difficult steps. It is your hard work that will ensure that, finally, women truly have the same choices as men.
When I speak to young graduates, I always note that adulthood is about more than opportunity and challenge--it is also about responsibility. As adults, you assume certain responsibilities to the community and society that have given you the opportunities you now have. Adults assume many responsibilities, but three in particular are worth discussing at some length. The first is our responsibility to try to assist young people on their path to adulthood. Secondly, we as responsible adults must be active in efforts to improve the community in which we live. Finally, mature adults are knowledgeable about the major public concerns facing the nation, and participate in the democratic process in an informed and responsible fashion. I implore you to dedicate yourself to fulfilling these three responsibilities. As young women, these responsibilities are particularly important.
Contrary to what you may have heard, childhood and adolescence are not necessarily "the best days of your lives." Growing up has always been a difficult and trying experience, and this era is certainly no exception. American youths are daily faced with a number of dangers and temptations, many of which are familiar to you. Drug and alcohol abuse are sadly too common among too many teenaged children. Violence is a daily part of life in many communities, and teenagers often bear the brunt of tragic acts of violence. Our schools themselves have not been spared the violent impulses of society, and recent events in Littleton, Colorado and Conyers, Georgia have graphically highlighted the horrors of violence in schools. At the root of the social problems of youth violence and substance abuse are profoundly lonely and alienated children, many of whom are unable to visualize any happiness or success in their immediate or distant futures. A lack of parental or adult guidance and support characterizes the experiences of many of our most isolated youth, and their low feelings of self worth could generally be improved through stable contact with caring adults.
As high school graduates and young adults, you are in a unique position to successfully reach out to young people. You are not, as people of my generation are, 20 years removed from the problems, frustrations, and pressures of being young. You therefore can relate to the struggles kids face better than older adults can. Furthermore, children frequently look up to people your age, and have a good deal of respect for you precisely because you can relate to them so well. Also, young, successful adults such as yourselves are superb role models for children to follow. Children can picture themselves as successful high school graduates and college students--they have much more trouble imagining the more distant future. Your experiences are not so remote from theirs, and you can provide an excellent example of the character and accomplishments to which they should aspire.
I therefore strongly urge you to get involved somehow with efforts to improve the welfare of children. Most colleges sponsor a variety of programs designed to reach out to at-risk kids. Become a mentor. Become a tutor. Use your unique talents and abilities to become stable, caring, and supportive adult influences on children in your community. Children today are at risk in many ways. You have a tremendous amount to offer them. Be sure to live up to your responsibility to children on the path to adulthood. They need your support.
As young women, you might consider reaching out specifically to young girls. Instill in a young woman the confidence that she needs to succeed. Design a leadership program for young girls. Serve as a role model. Take the local sixth grade glass to meet female legislators or top female executives in your area to showcase the opportunities available to women.
Active involvement in the betterment of his or her community is a second duty that responsible adults must undertake. Localities today face an extremely diverse range of problems, a natural consequence of the fact that America's communities are themselves so diverse. However, there is at least one problem that seems to be faced by a vast number of communities, be they large industrial cities or tiny rural towns. The problem is that many places lack a healthy sense of community, and therefore struggle getting broad civic involvement in community life. Apathy towards community affairs is a plague that truly does not discriminate. Every size and type of locality has been hit at one time or another by this plague, and, if left untreated, it can have devastating consequences. A lack of civic commitment has exposed many communities, Washington, D.C. among them, to a variety of social illnesses, including crime, decay, and lack of quality public facilities and institutions. Other communities have had friendly and vibrant social conditions replaced by pervasive alienation and distrust. Our individual lives are greatly enriched by a strong community existence. Apathy towards the lives of our communities will therefore impoverish our individual lives as well.
There are a number of organizations that are dedicated to encouraging a stronger and more healthy community life, and these organizations have enjoyed great success in combating apathy. Voluntary organizations are the lifeblood of American communities. Local volunteer organizations, religious congregations, and charities all play a crucial role in improving our community lives. Strong community organizations are probably the most effective way to bring to our communities a sense of civic pride and civic duty.
All of you have unique talents and attributes to bring to such organizations. In a general sense, your youth and energy will give community organizations a freshness and vitality that will doubtlessly be beneficial to their mission. Your education has placed special emphasis on developing your creativity, and you are therefore well equipped to develop unique or new approaches to solving community problems. I therefore strongly encourage all of you to get involved in your community. Become active in a community outreach program of some kind. If the specific sort of community organization you feel is necessary is not available, form one yourself. You undoubtedly possess the intelligence and skills necessary to do so. Responsible adults are not apathetic towards their communities -- Any community could benefit from your abilities.
As young women, you might think about getting involved in community programs that help empower other women - local rape crisis centers, battered women's shelters, or the YWCA might be a good place to start.
Finally, mature adults have a third critical responsibility--interest and participation in the public affairs of our nation. It is all too easy to become disenchanted with serious issues of public policy by the ugliness of the political squabbles that surround them. Our public discourse, particularly on television, seems to favor soundbite and personal attack over rational discussion and debate. Needless to say, it is easy to get turned off by the general coarseness that surrounds our political world. It is perhaps understandable why many people develop a cynical attitude towards political affairs, and refrain from participating in political matters.
That said, I implore you to avoid cynicism and apathy about issues of public policy. I say this because beneath the political nonsense there lie extremely important substantive issues about the kind of society that we want to live in. These are the sorts of basic, significant questions about which all Americans should have an opinion. The only way to formulate opinions on these issues is to be informed about the nature of the system we have in place, and to be familiar with the various proposals for altering it. Only by paying attention to political affairs can you become informed on these issues. Cheap and easy cynicism towards politics is not the path of responsible and thoughtful adults.
Undoubtedly, some of you will make government or politics your career choice. Others among you will become leaders in the scientific, technical, commercial, or artistic worlds. All of you are graduates of a great high school that has instilled in you the skills of analytic reasoning and independent, creative thinking. Therefore, all of you, regardless of your career choice, have a particular contribution to make to our public discourse. You are all particularly well situated to develop thoughtful, reasonable, and creative analyses of our public policy problems, and certainly have the intellectual power to come up with new solutions to those problems. Our public debate would be greatly enriched by voices such as yours.
I therefore urge you to become informed about the major public questions facing this country, and to thoughtfully consider the most likely possibilities for answering those questions. Do not give way to cynicism about politics. Become active in advocating causes that you truly support. You have much to contribute to our public decision making process. All of us would benefit from your involvement.
Adulthood brings with it many mundane responsibilities. However, I do believe that the three obligations that I have discussed are among the most important that responsible adults assume. If you dedicate yourselves to promoting the welfare of children, improving your community, and being informed and active in debates about important public questions, I guarantee that you will enjoy good lives. You will be humane, thoughtful, compassionate, and responsible adults, and you will help those around you aspire and achieve.
I wish you all the best, and offer a special congratulations to Katie Bradley and the Bradley family whom I have known and loved for years. You are all beautiful - - the best & the brightest. Congratulations to everyone on your accomplishments on this very special day.